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What It's Like to Run a Phone Line for Victims of Revenge Porn

The Revenge Porn Helpline is the first ever service of its kind in the UK, going after online abusers and helping to secure justice for victims. We speak to those who help run it as it celebrates its first birthday this year.

by Gareth May
Apr 10 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Kelly Knox via Stocksy

In a rain-battered office in Devon, UK, ringtones pierce the winter air, chilly headsets are pressed to ears, and pencils set to work as victims of revenge porn call up to speak of their plight. For six hours, every Monday to Friday, the phones light up; emotional support is shared, and legal coaching is given. On good days, explicit content is taken down within a matter of minutes. The lines have been alive like this for a year now. This is the country's official Revenge Porn Helpline.

Made up of a three-strong team, the fledgling national scheme is coming to the end of its pilot. Since opening in February last year, the helpline has taken over 4,000 calls and managed 650 unique cases, some resulting in conviction. At the time of going to press, there are whispers that it will be spared from the government's chopping block for at least another year.

The helpline is the brainchild of Laura Higgins, the online safety operations manager of the Safer Internet Center, which itself was co-funded by the European Commission and set up in 2011 to provide a helpline for professionals working with children regarding issues such as cyberbullying and sexting.

It was whilst working at the center that Higgins first encountered what she originally termed "online sexual harassment," taking calls from social workers, police officers, and teachers who, for example, may have left an abusive relationship only to later find their an ex partner had posted intimate pictures of them on amateur porn sites or anonymous social media accounts.

"Most of my first clients were professionals, they were not 18 year olds who went on a dating site and shared too many images. That's what the media will tell you, but it's not the case," Higgins explains. "These were people either being harassed by an ex partner—and it was clearly a domestic abuse scenario—or people who were the victims of blackmail, with perpetrators using the fact that they were in a professional role and would probably get sacked if the pictures were shared virally."

Read More: Pornhub Launches War on Revenge Porn

With her vast network of contacts at Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter, Higgins was very effective at getting these images taken down. The calls, however, kept on coming. And by 2014, Women's Aid and the National Stalking Helpline had also reported an increase in revenge porn cases.

"It wasn't a new phenomena," Higgins says, adding that the case of Dr Holly Jacobs in 2012, who eventually set up the End Revenge Porn charity, sparked a conversation on nonconsensual pornography in the US. "But it wasn't as prevalent [as it is now] and certainly wasn't talked about. There was no one saying, 'I know what to do in this situation.'" The stage, as they say, was set.

Photo by Aleksandra Jankovic via Stocksy

The sands really started to shift when Higgins was contacted by Conservative MP Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. The latter had educated herself on the issue of revenge porn after a constituent had become a victim. The pair had what Higgins describes as a "beautifully challenging" conversation; within weeks, Higgins was meeting with ministers in the House of Commons. This was in 2014. Less than a year later, revenge porn was taken out from under the wing of the Safer Internet Center and given its own funding, staff, and helpline, all of which coincided with its introduction as a criminal offence carrying a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

Convictions—of which there have been many, from a heterosexual man in his 40s to an LGBTQ woman in her 20s—are only one end goal of the helpline. (We won't know actual figures until the annual stats are released by the Ministry of Justice in May.) In a statement provided to Broadly, the Government Equalities Office says that the helpline provides "an effective and direct way to combat a growing problem that other services were struggling to deal with both through lack of resources and lack of knowledge" as well as working "proactively with social platforms and service providers to build and share best practice to address the crime."

Indeed, the Revenge Pornography Helpline covers all bases: working with London's Queen Mary University to link clients to its free legal service SPITE (Sharing and Publishing Images to Embarrass); providing police coaching; liasing with internet companies to remove content where possible; and directing individuals to additional support services such as Relate.

My dream is that we don't need a helpline because we stop [revenge porn].

Tammy* was a victim of revenge porn. "The Revenge Porn Helpline has been great in helping me address several problems," she told me anonymously via email. "It helped me also come in contact with other victims and one feels not alone [sic]. They are great and very professional. It would be great if they would do follow up calls, to see how the victim is, and to see if the victim's case has been dealt with [by the police]. There are other brilliant organizations also like VOIC (Victims Of Internet Crime) that deal with one-to-one support, so the helpline has been great in helping me come in contact with other organizations."

Despite the helpline's success, the government's all out war on revenge porn does have its flaws—mostly when it comes to legislative terminology and law enforcement attitudes.

For instance, the legislation doesn't cover Photoshopped images. This is an issue, Higgins says, that largely affects victims in the British Asian community some of whom wouldn't dream of taking a "sexy selfie."

"About one fifth of the helpline's clients come from these very quiet and conservative communities," she says. "And Photoshopping has moved on hugely and looks very real so the damage is very significant. With male victims, for example, it's often male-on-male so it's more added complication, in terms of stigma and shame."

As a result the helpline is working closely with Karma Nirvana, an organization promoting the rights of Asian women in the UK as well as the Muslim Women's Network, which manages domestic abuse cases. There's hope to start outreach work with community faith groups later this year.

The revenge porn law also has a very unambiguous interpretation of emotional harm (the final bit of the legislation is "with intent to cause distress"). This is particularly jarring when it comes to prosecuting and combating activity on forums and user boards hosting literally thousands of images.

"As opposed to being your ex who decides to take revenge by posting images, these are people you know, who are your peers, who in some way have a bit of a crush on you," Higgins explains. "They might be people who trade images of their crushes from school, sometimes using bitcoins to pay for them, or they might hack Photobuckets and hand on the passwords and links, but because it's not done with 'intent to cause distress' they cannot be prosecuted under the [revenge porn] legislation."

After speaking with Higgins I went in search of a few of these forums and I what I found can only be described as an underground industry of non-consensual pornography, where perpetrators request images for women from particular areas of the UK, neatly categorized by county: 'Exeter', 'Lincolnshire' etc.

In some cases full names are given (even if the 'rules' state "keep personal details to a minimum. First name and first letter of last name will suffice") and there are even boasts to privately trade victims' places of work, university, and social media handles ("Oh shit I have this girls [sic] home address!! Is that too savage to post? And Facebook if anyone wants?"). Others upload images with requests for them to be Photoshopped or even "cummed" or "tributed," where a fellow perpetrator wanks over the photo.

Other terms I was less au fait with and I had to email Higgins in order to find out what "nicki minaj fan" or "win" meant. She replied: "'Win' is full nude, normally explicit... I think the other is a poorly hidden reference to a women's privates but that may be my interpretation! Told you it was unpleasant, this is not porn in the usual sense."

It seems to me that the miasma of revenge pornography is largely fuelled by misconception; that it's just teenagers sharing pictures of their boobs on Whatsapp or Snapchat, which then gets shared on a social network. The truth is far graver. For starters, the breadth of people involved, both victims and perpetrators, is broader than most would expect. As Higgins says, it's not a '"generational thing"—some of her clients are in their 60s. She's also at pains not to focus on women. She's clear that this is a crime that impacts men as well (75 percent of callers are indeed women, but 50 percent of male callers are victims of bribery or 'sextortion').

There's also the misunderstanding of how images are shared. Many of the helpline's clients are filmed without their knowledge or are forced into it by an abusive partner. "People have this idea," Higgins says. "That it's young people online dating and sharing photos, and although that does happen in some cases it's not the majority; it's a lot more complicated than that."

Such misinformed views are forgivable when held by the average Joe on the street, but Higgins says this "misconception of silly young girls" is something she hears "coming out of the mouths of ministers and senior police officers."

"I hear it," she says. "And it makes my blood boil."

Higgins tells me one example of a client she's spoken with over 100 times, a case that is still on going. The victim is 56; and her perpetrator repeatedly sent explicit images of her to her son to the point where their relationship has broken down. When she went to the police she was told she was overreacting, to ignore it, and that she shouldn't have taken the pictures in the first place. Since that case, Higgins says that "police response has improved but it's still very poor, victim blaming is rife, and there are a lot of inconsistency."

The helpline is just the tip of the iceberg. As Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State and Women and Equalities Minister, tells us: "Circulating intimate photos of someone without their consent is never acceptable, and we need to educate people to the dangers of sending intimate images. The helpline is just the beginning of this and until revenge porn no longer exists we will continue to evolve our approach on combatting the problem."

"My dream," Higgins says, "is that we don't need a helpline because we stop it. This has been a phenomenal piece of work to be involved in from beginning to end. But there's still a lot of work to be done."

* Name has been changed

The helpline is available on 0845 6000 459 from 10 AM to 4 PM, Monday to Friday, and messages left outside these hours will be returned. Anonymous conversations can be started at ww.revengepornhelpline.org.uk and emails can be sent at any time tohelp@revengepornhelpline.org.uk

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